A Backend, Open Source Revolution: UCLA Daily Bruin Online Redesign Gives Staff Greater ‘Creative Control’

The Daily Bruin has taken control of its online destiny.  Staffers at UCLA’s A-list student newspaper— revered throughout collegemediatopia for its digital prowess– recently unveiled a rejiggered website.

The changes may not be immediately apparent to readers.  As Bruin web producer and redesign overlord Byron Lutz confirms, “A lot of people have seen the site and thought, ‘Oh, this looks basically the same as the old site or works basically the same.'”  But it’s not, at least on the backend.

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In a Google+ Hangout last week, Lutz explained to online managing editor Devin Kelly, “The huge reason that we changed to a new site is for more creative control of the site.  So we have more control over the backend of the site.”

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In a separate, fairly recent email Q&A, Lutz goes into more detail on what led to the redesign and offers advice for student outlets that want to follow in the DB’s stead.

What was the staff’s aim with the redesign, especially considering your most recent version was already top-notch?

Our aim with the redesign was to give us more control over our site. Our last website had proprietary, closed-source software from Detroit Softworks running on a server to which we did not have direct access. Now, we have direct control over almost every aspect of our site.

Our new site’s most noticeable features are its fixed bugs (we no longer have broken image links all over the site and our front-page content rotator now works well, for instance) and [a] completely refreshed design, but many of the most important changes are in the backend, running WordPress from our own servers. With this higher amount of control, we are able to display our own content in a more engaging way. On the front page right now is a link to a survey and a teaser for a long-term project– both were very difficult to do on our old site.

What’s a specific tool or design element you are especially excited about?

Though there are very few new features on our new website, we’re most excited about our push for a website that works across all modern devices and browsers. Since our target audience is mostly college students, many with Internet-enabled smartphones, having a mobile version of our website that was difficult to navigate and did not display all our content was unacceptable. Our video and audio players, for instance, both relied on the Adobe Flash plugin to run. Now our video and radio pieces do not solely rely on Adobe Flash and can play seamlessly across most devices. The new website is responsive: It tries to maximize its use of available screen size and provide a great user experience, regardless of device or orientation.

[In the Google+ Hangout with Kelly, Lutz also spotlights a new photo blog, which he said was integrated into the site immediately upon its completion– a happy consequence of the backend control staffers now have.]

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Any advice for other student press teams looking to dive into an online redesign?

Two pieces of advice: First, design for the long run. Turnover on student teams is very high (there is typically an entirely new team every four years) so if your site doesn’t last or isn’t maintainable, a team four years in the future will replace it. Second, your site is never complete. Since journalism is about telling the stories of the world as it is today, your site should reflect that and should rapidly adapt to changes in your community.

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